Catrin Nichols: Can the chancellor restore public trust in local councils?
In the Budget, Philip Hammond has a chance to fill the funding gap for local authorities.
Political theory has long identified trust as essential to the functioning of modern democracies. Trust among citizens enables them to depend on each other and rely on government to collectively provide for them. Historically, local government has fared well in terms of public trust. But research by BritainThinks reveals a recent dip in the level of trust in local government and explores the complexities behind this.
Across all sectors of society, trust in organisations and institutions often comes down to competence and motivation. The public has to see that an institution’s motivations are, at least to some extent, aligned to their own. But those same institutions also have to prove that they can ‘do the job’, and do it consistently. This interplay between mistrust in motivations and incompetence has seen even one of our most trusted institutions, local councils, fall from grace.
To understand the context of public trust in local councils, it is important to remember that trust in central government has always been low. Edelman’s Trust barometer has consistently shown that only a minority of the British public trust the government; currently this figure stands at 36%, although it has been as low as 16% in 2007. The public is even more distrusting of specific political parties; BritainThinks research shows that only 14% of the public agree that the Conservative party is honest with them, and Labour doesn’t fare much better, with only 24% agreeing that this is the case.
By contrast, trust in local councils has historically been much higher. Research by Ipsos Mori shows that a majority of the public have trusted their local councils every year since 2012. When asked explicitly whether they trust their local council or central government to make decisions, local councils always come out on top, by a big margin. But when measured recently against the key metrics of competency and motivation, BritainThinks research shows that local councils are failing to win the public’s trust.
More than two fifths (42%) say that their local council is bad at what it does. This finding is perhaps unsurprising considering the severe cuts made in the past decade since the austerity programme started under David Cameron’s government. The spending power of local councils has fallen by up to 25% in the past decade, but the demands on local services has grown, creating an unsustainable gulf between supply and demand. Such a shortage in funding has even led to Northamptonshire county council effectively declaring itself bankrupt. Austerity has fundamentally limited local councils’ ability to serve the public competently.
Public trust in their councils is further damaged by questionable motivations. Again, four in ten people express a lack of trust in their local council to work in society’s best interests and nearly half (44%) express a lack of trust in them to work in their own best interests. For reference, this level of distrust in motivation is similar to that in banks (44% do not trust high street banks to act in their own best interest, 46% do not trust investment banks). And like banks, councils have seen a question of motivation over excessive executive pay. High salaries are particularly unjustifiable in an age of austerity when the public is directly affected by cut backs on front-line services. As one of our participants put it: “all that we’ve paid over the years, what are they doing with it? They must be pocketing it.”
The Grenfell tragedy is one of the most prominent examples of how poor motivation and incompetence has irreparably damaged the trust of local residents. Ed Daffarn, member of Grenfell United, blames the “incompetence” and “greed” of Kensington and Chelsea Borough for the tragedy. The local authority’s failure to maintain safe building standards in the first place, and to adequately respond to the tragedy in the aftermath, speak not just to incompetence, but an inability to put the interests of its residents above other priorities. That council workers have since been caught stealing from the victim fund is just the icing on top of a big mistrustful cake.
Theresa May has already promised extra funding for councils, but will this be enough to reverse the long-term damage to their ability to provide front-line services? At a time when the majority of the public support higher taxes and higher spending, Philip Hammond has the chance to take May’s pledges further and fill the funding gap for local authorities. Perhaps by enabling local councils to ‘get the basics right’, the Conservatives might win back some of the public’s trust in their local councils, even if trust in their own party is dismally low. Trust is, after all, one of the pillars of this democracy.